Your phone beeps. It’s another late night request for help. ‘Can you just pop round tomorrow to sort out the…?’
The doorbell rings. Your parent is at the door unannounced. ‘I found this great new top for you and while I’m here I’ve been wanting to sort out that messy cupboard of yours for a while.’
‘Your hair looks terrible’, she says pulling at it. ‘Get an appointment to sort it out.’
‘You look like you’ve put on weight’, says dad, patting your stomach.
‘Why don’t you like X? I saw something on your Facebook page and I just had to comment.’
These are all examples of boundary violations. And these examples are just from a parent.
They could equally be from a friend, borrowing without consent, taking time or support beyond what you can offer.
Or a boss, pressing extra work on you, taking credit for work you’ve done
Or a partner criticising you in front of others…
This article is all about setting boundaries with family, setting boundaries at work, boundaries with friends and partners, particularly if you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse or childhood emotional neglect.
Wherever you struggle to say no in your life, this will help.
Why you let boundaries get violated
Let’s start with removing any blame:
I know there can be a lot of shame attached to getting your boundaries violated.
It can quickly turn into self attack: ‘ Why am I so weak?’ ‘Why am I a pushover? Why don’t I say no? I’m useless.’
I just want to say, this isn’t your fault. You’re doing what you’ve always done. Which is to do the best you can to survive. Even if at times this felt unsurvivable.
You’re 5 or 6. At home, you’re starting to work out, that mum or dad only really give you the attention you want or need when you comply with their rules, their way of seeing the world.
Any attempt to express your own personality or exert your will, is cut down, dismissed or ignored. Soon you start to learn to suppress that voice of truth within you. It’s easier to comply.
What power do you have as a child? You’ll do anything to get some attention, some form of love, however conditional it might be.
So that’s why I say no blame. Your child self did what she or he had to do to survive and cope. A lot of that adaptation would have been unconscious.
And probably set down by how your other parent, if present, complied with the narcissistic or emotionally neglectful parent.
The long and short of it is this. You develop this belief:
I’m only loveable if I set aside my needs and comply with what others want
I’m repeating it, because it’s so important that you really hear this:
I’m only loveable if I set aside my needs and comply
That is at the heart of not setting effective boundaries. Your adult self gets it. Your child self is terrified of being abandoned, abused, attacked if she states her needs clearly.
It follows you through your life, like a ball and chain. Anytime someone steps in too close, literally or metaphorically, that terror rises up.
'I’m only loveable if I set aside my needs and comply' That is at the heart of not setting effective boundaries. #narcissisticabuse
It probably starts with a feeling in your body. It rapidly translates into a ‘Yes of course’, even though another part of you is screaming inside ‘I don’t want to.’
It’s very hard to bypass this type of response, because it starts in the body, rather than the mind.
However, it is possible to start changing things, with some really simple tools.
How to set effective boundaries
If you feel ready to start setting firmer boundaries, here are some key things to do:
1) Identify the feeling in your body
When a boundary gets violated or is threatened, how does your body respond. Where does it tighten? Where does it collapse or freeze? If you can learn to observe that feeling, you have the information to have a different response.
2) Slow down
So if your body has an immediate response of needing to keep the peace, not rock the boat or lie low, you can start to change things this way.
When someone makes a request of you or performs an action that infringes a boundary, count to 10 before you do anything else. That gives time for your brain to come online and for you to make some informed choices about how to respond.
‘I need to think about it’ is a great slowing down response, which creates some space before committing to anything you don’t want.
3) Imagine yourself as powerful (you are already)
When you aren’t so confident about yourself, it can be hard to believe that you have any power to change a situation for the better.
That sometimes is true. It certainly was when you were a child. But what about now? Is it really true? There may be fear attached to standing up for yourself.
You can practise feeling more powerful in different ways:
- Stand up when speaking to someone who scares you or makes you feel anxious
- Imagine yourself double your current height and size, a giant in the situation
- Practise saying ‘no’ firmly and loudly in the mirror
4) Be kind to yourself
Remember what it was like learning to ride a bike or to swim?
It took patience, practice and persistence to get there. Having that same mindset when practising setting boundaries will help you be gentle with yourself.
Sometimes you’ll miss a chance, Or come across too strong. If you can treat it as an experiment, learning the a new skill, it will take the pressure off getting it right.
5) Have some ready made lines
Earlier, we looked at how your body response is driving you at times when your boundaries are being tested.
It’s hard to think on the spot when that’s happening. So having some ready made responses can be really helpful.
Particularly when setting boundaries with habitual boundary breakers.
If for example, your mum makes a comment about your physical appearance, whenever you see her, think of a kind but firm response you can roll out.
‘Thanks mum, but I’m happy with the way I look. I’d prefer it, if you didn’t comment on how I dress.’
You'll know the tone and language that works best for you.
6) Protect yourself against a reaction
A warning here:
If you’re setting a boundary with a narcissistic person, you need to be prepared for a reaction. There might be an explosion of anger or criticism, if you hold a line.
Or a collapse into tears. Or a withdrawal into a cold silence.
Your child self will become scared, most likely, and want to make amends. To rescue the other person.
If you can, gently and kindly remind yourself to take care of her, not mum. You could do this with some words of reassurance, imagining yourself holding her hand or standing between her and mum / dad / partner / boss / colleague / friend.
7) Learn what your limits are
As you start to practise setting boundaries, you’ll begin to notice what your limits are.
Some things will always feel like a red flag. Others might soften or be fluid, depending on who you’re with and what they are requesting of you.
It’s really helpful to know your values. They can act as a compass for helping you to decide when to maintain or relax a boundary.
8) Support and protect your inner child
This is perhaps the biggest one of all.
There’s someone who’s going to get in the way of saying no. She’ll do it time and time again if you don’t pay her attention. For her, setting the boundary is a terrifying act of defiance. It sets her up for rejection, dismissal, abandonment.
Your inner child’s sense of self is very vulnerable. She’s learnt to adapt and make herself small, to avoid the emotional blows of not being accepted for herself.
She’s a master of disguise. A shapeshifter who knows how to minimise the risk of not being seen or accepted. She learnt the hard way. And that was to become a pleaser. Because that was probably the best strategy to survive.
When you start to deviate from pleasing and start to assert yourself, it can feel terrifying for that child part of you.
If you can start to have a dialogue with her, it will help soothe her. Let her know, if you can, that you’re here to protect her, that you’ve got this under control, that bad things aren’t going to happen when you start to say no.
It won’t be easy at first. She’ll need to see that she can trust you. That you won’t sacrifice her for others’ gain, or your own, even.
If you're struggling with boundaries
Sometimes you just need help with this stuff. A mentor, coach or therapist who can support you step by step. Be alongside you when there are setbacks and difficulties. Because there will be.
This isn't necessarily easy or pain free. But it is the route to greater freedom. Which is priceless.
Why not get in touch to find out how we might work together?
I help people just like you overcome the effects of childhood emotional neglect and narcissistic abuse, so they can reclaim their self-esteem and self confidence.
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